I'm adaptable, and I like my new role
I'm getting better and better
I have a new goal
I'm changing my ways where money applies
Nouvelle Vague, "This is Not a Love Song"
An ecstasy is a thing that will not go into words; it feels like music, and one cannot tell about music so that another person can get the feeling of it.
Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger
It was a brisk walk back to the hotel, and when they got there, the Hatter shut the door, leaned against it with his palms flat behind him, and stood gazing meditatively with a tight jaw into the final veins of fading light for nearly a quarter of an hour. She leaned into the far edge of the couch watching the vestiges of heathery blue and violet drain to the floor until he pushed himself away so suddenly that she started.
At his disjointed entreaty, Alice ventured forth into the misted lamplight holding a hastily-scribbled list and several indigo-colored bank notes in her pocket, thankful that the chemist's across the narrow avenue was empty at the opera hour. Upon her return with a string-wrapped package containing seven bottles of varying sizes and indeterminate contents, the Hatter removed three of them, looked at her, and disappeared into his rooms.
After draping her cloak at the ready by the door, Alice sat before the dressing table and ran a brush through her hair with quietness that secreted a kind of quivering alacrity in her wrist, and found herself rather unsurprised at how strange she looked, not in least for her lost fringe. How circumstances changed a person, even in the blurry mixture of ruddy firelight and yellow from the gas lamp. She parted it to have a proper look; a strip at her roots was a bit lighter than the rest of her hair. Alice's locks had always been a pure zest of golden blonde, with closely bound variations here and there, but this was—not quite white, really, but lemon ice or cream color. And yet it was there, in the middle of her crown, a bold pale streak beginning to appear with the stress of winter. Each pass of the bristles dissipated the heat from the fire where she had warmed her toes; it loosed out, replaced by curious coolness, a phantom damp that does not fade for hours. Intermission at the opera house probably had just begun. Somewhere a clock was phrasing its chimes in a fitting minor key.
Eventually, and emboldened by layers of impatience and uncertainty, she arose with tea cup in hand. His apartments were different, mediterranean blue and burnished gold, bands of moulding that wrapped corners, damask striped sofas with stubbed walnut legs. There was a clinking noise from the open door to the bathroom, and she caught his direct gaze in the mirror's reflection; he put the back of his hand to his mouth, then set the dark bottle on the vanity and swallowed.
Alice dropped the tea cup, the saucer, and the spoon with a muffled clunk onto the carpet, where they produced an amusingly obscene stain that would never be appreciated.
"Which ones?" he said to her, striding into the sitting room and holding in his left hand a pair of wire spectacles, in his right a pince-nez. "These," and he hooked the ends of the spectacles over his ears, giving her a moment to view him properly, "Or this," and switched them to hold the little c-shaped bridge high between his eyes.
Alice's hand was still from where she had dropped the tea, and she had a rather unladylike gape transpiring, but the Hatter required her cooperation and did not comment.
"Uh—" she said.
"I'll do it again," he answered. "These," hooked them over his ears, "Or this," held up to the bridge of his nose. "These or this." And he raised his eyebrows expectantly, his expression otherwise blank.
"Hmm." The Hatter turned away from her to bend down to the looking glass. He clipped the cord to his lapel and squeezed the bridge clip a few times experimentally.
She came up and bestowed on him a thoroughly soul-searching look.
"On second thought, that wouldn't last long," he murmured.
Alice nodded appreciatively after a fashion, somehow subsumed and yet cushioned by her own surprise. What he had done had resulted in not only there now being an uncharacteristic neatness to his hair, a seamed part up the back of his head with his curls tamed and reigned back from his forehead, but also an uncanniness, for his hair was a very steady dark brown now.
He was a normal person. Or an astoundingly shrewd approximation of one.
Not having a Hatter with wild white hair took everything out of him, or nearly. One could be halfway expected to think that he'd got himself a job at a bank, and enjoyed such past times as altogether lacking the urge to throw dinner rolls at her head, talking of the weather as a meteorological occurrence rather than an anathema and long-despised enemy, and keeping his composure in check and his voice at an appropriate volume. The density of color so high along him called into focus everything about him that was so nebulous and mysterious before. It was as though she could see faint crazing at his surface that could only hint at some unknown deeper tension; now of all the nows, he had a presence, or an absence of vagary, she could not decide. He blinked, he squinted and frowned, wrinkled his forehead—all of these things he'd done before and had been doing all this time, but it drew the eye; she could not not watch. There was an undeniable absoluteness to it.
She felt herself grow cold beneath her fingernails, felt muffled and cushioned from a shift in the Earth, and lacked a word for it.
He was fiddling with the nose clip on the spectacles, then tilted his chin to look at her sidelong. "Fetch the other bottles, if you would."
She would, but—"What for?"
There was a pause while he just looked at her, but his eyes seemed to pass from her chin to her forehead and back again.
"Well, I don't know about you," he said, "But I don't feel like barricading myself up here."
There was bluntness to his tone that she did not particularly find encouraging or pleasant, but she was at a loss to find the means to retort; instead, she took the wire set of spectacles and began to bend the ear pieces so that it would float just above his nose.
"I would've thought you'd be set on leaving town," Alice ventured to say.
"No," directly replied the Hatter—and she had this thought with some surprise, because was he really the Hatter without a hat and his bespoke look?—and he looked at her again with a sad, calculating expression.
Anxiety bade her declare with firm insistence that he do it out of shot of the mirror; even so, Alice was dauntless, her brow creased, and the Hatter answered it with nice distraction.
"I'm thinking of growing a mustache—tilt to the left, if you don't mind."
Alice cringed at the tingling sensation that was wriggling down her neck, but said—
—mustering as much casual air as one possibly could in similar circumstances.
"Oh, I've never had one before; I'm not sure how it would turn out."
She did not answer.
"Perhaps a pencil mustache; it wouldn't be too taxing an endeavor, and it is the dernier cri—no, keep leaning—though I do wonder if it's already outmoded, you know, this, that, the other, and it's out the door again." Alice shut her eyes and tried to imagine what this would look like, but came up short. Her nose was beginning to run rather indelicately.
"Well," he murmured, "Perhaps it would only wind up drawing the attention."
"Oh, I think you could manage it," Alice was heard to say; she was busy weighing the task of resigning herself in best preparation. "You always do." The Hatter paused, one hand still up, and waited until she'd look at him. When she did, it was with a hint of warm esteem that he stepped back and gauged her at last.
"There," he said quietly.
"Hmm?" She was already picking up on a change in her peripheral vision, an uncanny and foreign solidity.
"It's not bad," said the Hatter, bending down to adjust and compare. "Rather well, really. I don't know if I'm allowed to say that. I did the best I could."
"Should I look?"
He shook his head, looking thoughtful, and said,
"Not yet." From this she couldn't help a shudder of brief displacement; that curious awareness of change outside of the endless flow of time.
"Sit by the fire for a bit."
"What about you?"
"Well," he said, and after settling her placed himself onto a chair at her wrist.
There was a pause, and for the first time, a measure of the evening's reality caught up to Alice, just out of reach.
"I didn't bother to ask, but—this isn't permanent, is it?"
"No," said the Hatter with a surprised laugh, "I wouldn't do that to you."
When her hair was dry with heat, Alice went to the mirror, and looking there, the outcome wasn't what she would have chosen, but none of this was. That sense of being separate and apart from it returned, and it was only when the Hatter bent to see her reflection better that she turned and gave him a queer little half-smile as though she had realized something.
"There," he said, and wound a dark curl round his finger, observing it with a mild detachment, "What d'you reckon?"
"You look abnormally normal."
The Hatter's reflection tilted his head in appraisal at them both. "It is a bit weird, isn't it?"
They went out, both for late pudding and an almost-gleeful cautious debut. Alice paused on a street corner with a ramekin of crème brûlée in one mitt and the spoon cupped over her tongue, watching clods and dots of snow shushing in and out of the lamplight. It made a lovely scene and was interrupted only when the Hatter, coming up from the pushcart, edged her back slowly but firmly into the shadow of a large building.
Late pairs were hoofing it in for a soirée, all a blur of satin pumps, silk brocade, and frothy lace; Alice was less annoyed than she was amused to think of what the Hatter would do in broad daylight, and leaned obligingly against the brick to contemplate the last bit of custard in the cup seam.
His grip on her arm gave her pause with the spoon upside down in her mouth; looking up, it made a deep metallic click against her tooth. Egressed a familiar pair of heads, which Alice did not fully identify until they were halfway down the street and the Hatter had already glanced back at her with a secret sign before disappearing to follow them.
She gave him ten minutes, then decided it was a wait best had out in front of the fireplace.
It wasn't until the next morning, when Alice came out into the sitting room and began drinking her tea from the far edge of the cup, that she was hit with the full particulars of the previous night—primarily, that a thick lock of golden-brown hair was luxuriating rather presumptuously across her shoulder and down her arm, and otherwise, that the Hatter was still dressed from the night before, and, apparently having been unable to sleep, was flung upside down upon her sofa with his head in the rug, busied by deep thoughts and the act of knocking his shoes along its wood-trim back.
"Lovely walk?" she asked, flicking the curl away from her so it was well hid on her stern side; slurped her tea to get his attention. He peered up at her from his ostentatious slump.
"Lovely? I suppose one could see it that way," he said whilst attempting to rearrange himself. "Perhaps better said intriguing, or instructive, or informative."
"Oh?" She held the tea cup over her head when his upwardly mobile arm began reaching interestedly and bobbing back and forth. "In what way?"
The Hatter gave a short sigh which was punctuated, for Alice, with the fact that his hair had decided to stage its escape from the confines of combed life. "In a sort of er…" the Hatter paused for the right word, his arm continuing its to and fro hunt. He extricated his other wrist from where it was wedged between two cushions, and Alice went for a new cup on the service. "Philosophical-sociopolitical way."
"I think she's having a rummy time of it," he announced apropos of nothing, and Alice scrunched her mouth together, carefully balancing the tea cup on his upturned hand; it went still, gripped the handle, and the smallest finger straightened in delighted surprise. "If she's here for any longer, it's only to see the Count anyway."
"What an odd pair." Alice took a seat on what portion of the couch remained unassailed by limbs.
He thought on this a moment.
"I suppose so, though perhaps they're even chummier than I'd thought."
"Was it worth it?"
"Certainly not, nearly froze my toes and didn't get any pudding." He raised one eyebrow at her darkly but sipped with a contented air. "Though I do reckon it would be worth seeing how long she's in town; might be something to be finagled in that." Alice prodded the crown of his head with her bedslippered toe.
"What d'you mean?" Somehow he managed to take another sip before answering her.
"What d'you mean, 'what d'you mean'? I want to know what they're up to, don't you want to know what they're up to?"
Alice ministered to her tea in thought.
"How do you know she isn't simply on holiday?"
The Hatter did not reply.
"Or… here for a party, or a congress, or… any other number of things."
He folded himself upward to face her and gazed at Alice for several moments, his lower half still on the sofa.
She continued, "It's at least possible."
The Hatter squinted slightly, and there was a slight pause before he spoke.
"I forgot to do your eyebrows; they look obvious like that."
Afterward, he put her hair up; they went out, nicely meeting with doom—although looking back, Alice would be hard-pressed to say whether they'd been recognized or not. It was a rather harrowing forty-five minutes ("You hardly moved the whole time, only had to stand there!") either way ("You were the one who insisted on running about all over the place, I had nothing to do with it,"), and afterward, sitting in the back of a cafe, Alice remarked that perhaps it would be better if they both avoided mutually competitive sports for the future. She felt eerily as though she ought to be alarmed, but not actually so, upon his response.
"You knew she was going to be there?" Alice inquired sotto voce, leaning forward over the steam creeping from her cup of drinking chocolate to straighten his spectacles.
"Not necessarily," said her companion, nonchalant as he plucked another bittersweet chocolate wafer from the tray. "I admit to some luck coming into it, certainly, but—" He shrugged, sanguine, and promptly settled the cheque, sliding back through the arms of his overcoat before even she'd been able to finish her cup.
And so Alice was shown about Etlucindes in a peculiar pattern: this boulangerie, that fromagerie, this poissonnerie, that flingueuse: tea accompanying them at each. It was finally in the third of what was to be six art galleries that the Hatter at last considered the possibility that the Count and Duchess could be keeping themselves out of public eye even on an afternoon like this.
"Though, admittedly: where?"
"In the offing," speculated Alice into her cup, and just as she was beginning to think of going back to the hotel for a lie down, the Hatter straightened as though he had got a truly hot idea.
"I know where he lives."
Alice said nothing.
"I don't think you understand, I know—"
She glanced at him just once, then resumed her mild inspection of the street out the window behind her.
The Hatter attempted a glower, but when Alice at last favored him with another look, the effect was ruined by the delicate bucolic scene painted across his cup, rendered in a brush no thicker than an eyelash.
She tolerated the afternoon without objection—not that it would have done any good, Alice suspected; the Hatter egressed each door with an incongruous admixture of renewed purpose and dreamy, detached buoyancy—until twilight at last, when she put her foot down and insisted that he choose one last venue else he'd be walking back to the hotel, alone.
"I lifted your wallet outside the patisserie," she informed him, and the Hatter nodded appreciatively.
"Opera house," he said, waggling his finger like a divining stick in its opulent direction.
"Don't we need tickets?" she said as they pushed through the door. "We aren't dressed for this." But he was already going up a side staircase well at the back. Alice dodged past a woman with her curls wound into a large figure eight at the back of her head and ascended, reaching a common hallway and walking practically around the circumference of the theater before she saw a familiar pattern on a trouser leg sticking out from a booth curtain.
"What are you doing," she hissed, wrestling with the drapery in the darkness.
"There," he whispered back in awed triumph. Alice followed the lead of his arm to a box near the stage far opposite, where indeed, the Duchess and Count had annexed its quarters. Even with the light from the footlamps it was difficult to tell how they looked; presently the Count spoke to his companion, who produced a pair of opera glasses from thin air and handed them off without reply.
The Hatter moved, just once, stilted; Alice pinched her fingers into the elbow of his coatsleeve, yanking him back toward her as he did. The matter settled, they stood in the unlit depths of the booth and waited while the Count and Duchess continued to sit in motionless silence.
But no one came to claim the box, even as the gas lights and host together dimmed. It began, in that universal way, with conductorial materialization, attention, opening notes, etc. such that Alice did not even realize the brushed wool had loosed from her grip until the overture was half inside a gathered rest. She stood quietly waiting in a moment where perhaps nothing would happen unless she willed it to before forcing herself to move in deliberation along the curve, past all the other boxes, around to just where she could see the outer edge of posted guard.
The two men stood, perhaps bored, perhaps listening to the parabola of notes leaking out from a dark cleft between the two heavy drapes, untroubled by fate or mad men gamboling about in the upholstery. Alice folded her hands at the small of her back and made her way to the foyer, where ushers were rolling up a thickly piled carpet as wide as the grand staircase.
She found him standing at the curb, alternately squeezing and grinding his fingers into his palms, mashing them in a stuttering, agitated pattern. He kept doing it even as she hailed a cab, and would only look out the window the whole ride, leaning slightly forward, his back expanding and contracting with every breath.
Alice did not catch a decent look at his face until they reached the door—he was three steps ahead of her the whole way up, and began to pace in short bursts while she delved for the key—at once sickly pale and deeply saturnine.
"Don't you want your wallet back?"
He shut the door firmly.
She left him alone for a full turn of the clock, pretending to read a book her fingers had found, but it lacked a title—even an author—and one page's text cut off entirely, which was very odd indeed, as she did not think that half-finished books were worth much of anything at all. She was about to go and knock at the door when he emerged, looking distinctly enervated, as though he had been sick a few times. The front of his hair stuck up damply; the Hatter looked utterly drained.
"Are you all right?" she said with some concern, and as he sunk into the couch and buried his face into his open bare hands. She joined him with a hand at his shoulder.
"I hate this," she heard him say, muffled.
"Are you ill?" They both sat back as he drew a shuddering breath; his face was as white as his fingertips.
"It makes such a difference," he murmured at last, staring transfixed into the fireplace, "Just one extra violin." To Alice's look, the Hatter replied, "Let me tell you something about myself."